The Best Evidence

Mar 27 2016

THE BEST EVIDENCE

This sermon is dedicated to all of the people who have ever had questions about the Resurrection, but were afraid to ask, did not know whom to ask, or wondered if it would be incorrect to question the central event of the Christian faith.

If you are here today to hear me talk about how a man walked out of a tomb after being dead on Friday, I’m afraid that I am going to disappoint you. If you are here because you think that a physical resuscitation of Jesus assures that we will all have eternal life on the other side of the veil that separates life from death, you will be equally disappointed. In the biblical sense, there was a concept of resurrection long before Jesus walked on the face of this earth. On the other hand, if you are here today because the Resurrection is the central point of the Christian faith and you want to celebrate that, then you are in the right place 

If you think that what I have just said is contradictory, you are probably right in the sense that most Christians view the Resurrection as a physical resuscitation. I do not. But neither do I have the words to communicate to you exactly what happened? You might then challenge me that if there was, in fact, a Resurrection, why then can I not explain it to you. I can’t, but I am fully convinced that it occurred and that it is, indeed, the basis for the Christian faith.

So let me take you on a journey in a courtroom where we will examine those early lives that existed at the time of the event. Together we will view what is usually termed “circumstantial evidence” as offered proof of the event that we call Resurrection. My thesis is that the before and after actions of certain first century individuals will prove that an event we call “Resurrection” occurred.

My first witness is Peter. He was a fisherman who always wanted to be somebody who was important. He was tough, aggressive, loud and bombastic. He often made decisions without thinking and in the middle of carrying out those decisions messed up terribly. He tried to walk on water. When his gaze drifted from Jesus to the waves, he started to sink. He tried to follow Jesus on the night he was arrested and ended up denying that he even knew him. He felt bad after those incidents, and many more, but they did not inherently change who he was. He was still loud, aggressive, and bombastic.

He was close to Jesus, being present at both the Transfiguration and the Garden of Gethsemane. In both of those instances, he failed. He wanted to build monuments after the Transfiguration and was rebuked; he slept in the Garden and was rebuked for not being able to stay awake. What I have just described was Peter before what we now call Easter.

After Easter, after what we call a Resurrection occurred, there was a tremendous change in Peter. The after-Easter Peter became a man who was no longer hiding in the upper room with the disciples after the crucifixion, but a man whose personality became totally re-oriented. He became a powerful preacher for Jesus. He developed humility where before there was brashness and arrogance. He developed a quality of fearlessness that was genuine. And he was killed for his beliefs. Peter before would have fled; Peter after became one of the great preachers of the first century.

My second group of witnesses is the disciples. First a word about who they were. They were poor, uneducated, illiterate fishermen – low on the social scale. While there were a few exceptions like Matthew who was presumably a tax collector, even that station in life was viewed with disdain by the Jews. And make no mistake, the disciples were Jews 

What did they do? They fled when Jesus was arrested. Some might have made it back to Galilee; others hid in Jerusalem in a well-secured, locked room, presumably waiting for the end of Passover so they could slip out of the city with the rest of those who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover.

In the Gospels we have a trio – Peter, James and John – who appear to be of more importance than the rest. But Peter betrayed Jesus, and James and John were among those who fled. The disciples were cowardly, disillusioned and despairing. They had lost Jesus; they feared that the Roman authorities would come after them next. So they hid until it would be safe to depart Jerusalem.

What changed them from sniveling cowards into a group that launched a mission that developed into the Christian church? What experience energized them so tremendously that they moved forward with confidence? Again, it was something that we call the Resurrection that changed them and molded them into being first century giants who preached about the fact that “Jesus lived” and became the forerunners of what we now call Christianity.

For my third witness, I present James, the brother of Jesus. Most people forget that James is mentioned as a brother of Jesus. Most people forget what his attitude toward his brother was. But Josephus makes mention of him in his writings because of the influence he had on the early church. What were his early attitudes towards his brother? Several incidents related in the Gospels indicate that the relationship between Jesus and his brothers was less than cordial.

They were questioning, embarrassed by him and scoffed at him. One incident that most of us can remember happened when Jesus was preaching in Nazareth. His family set out to get him because people were saying that he had gone mad. (Mark 3:20ff) In another incident he denounced his mother and his brothers and his sisters and told the crowd that “his true mother and sisters and brothers were those that did the will of God.”

What happened to change James, the brother of Jesus, into so great an influence in the early church that the historian Josephus mentioned him? What made that brother become a disciple, call Jesus Lord, and assume a leadership role in the early church? Something happened to change him. Something that the early church called a “Resurrection.”

Words are time-bound. There were no words that existed at the time to explain how and why these changes occurred. But there is no doubt that they occurred. And there is no doubt that in some way, in some dimension, somehow, Peter, the disciples and the James experienced a Resurrection of Jesus – a form of Jesus that convinced them beyond anything they had ever encountered that he lived. And because he lived, they became changed individuals who went forth and told others that he lived.

I am not here today to convince you to doubt that a Resurrection occurred. On the contrary, it is the central belief of the Christian faith. But I am here to tell you that I do not believe that it was a physical resuscitation, but an experience that the disciples, his brother, and Saul who became Paul had that changed them, influenced them, and challenged them to tell others that “Jesus lives.”

In a conversation that I had with another pastor, that pastor told me, “I am not ready to give up on the Resurrection.” Neither am I, but a careful reading to the Gospels will tell anyone with any amount of ability to discern, that there are so many contradictions regarding the Easter Resurrection stories that point away from a literal reading. But there are many references to the preaching of those early church leaders that tell us that something beyond description happened to them to turn them into changed men.

One other point – the earliest reference we have in the New Testament that we call a Resurrection was in the epistle reading from this morning, written by Paul around 45 CE. You heard it – that he died, he was buried, and he was RAISED from the dead and then appeared to the list Paul gives. And that last he appeared to Paul. The translation of the word appeared is ophthe – like a vision.  There were no Gospels when Paul wrote. He was dead before the first Gospel appeared almost thirty years later. There was no empty tomb for Paul – just a Resurrection. We cannot read that statement in view of the Gospels because they did not exist!

Was there a Resurrection? Was Jesus RAISED from the dead? Beyond a doubt. How did it occur? I don’t know. But the evidence points to a resounding YES and to the reason that Christian churches everywhere still celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, and still preach that his Resurrection indicates that we all have eternal life. You may believe what you will, but the evidence speaks for itself. We’re here today 2,100 years later and still celebrating the Resurrection. That ought to stand for something. Amen.